Week 16: A Week in West Virginia with the Southern Appalachian Labor School
A rusted out car and two rusted pickup trucks sit like silent sentries on the field in front of Mr. Gray’s house. The house is old and in extensive disrepair – no heat or hot water, a hole in the kitchen floor that opens to the basement, a hole in the wall that opens to the outdoors. I am in Fayette County, West Virginia for a week, as part of a team of volunteers working with SALS (Southern Appalachian Labor School).
Freddy Gray was one of 7 children who grew up in the 4 room house in Mt. Hope. All 5 boys shared one small bedroom. Two sisters slept on the couch. As is still typical now, the Grays had plenty of family in Mt. Hope. Freddy grew up with cousins and extended family all around. As Freddy reached his 20s there was little economic opportunity in Fayette County so he moved away to Cincinnati to build a life and raise a family. When he retired he moved back to his childhood home in West Virginia to be near family again.
That was part of my journal entry from Monday afternoon. By the end of the week my time in West Virginia will have engraved a permanent space in my heart.
The Southern Appalachian Labor School provides skills training and education to working class and disenfranchised young adults (ages approximately 18 – 26). I was one of our volunteers assigned to the construction crew at the Gray house for the week so got to work alongside the same students every day, which gave me the opportunity to really get to know them. Our construction manager has been dedicated to SALS for many years is passionate about working with the students and helping the homeowners.
Our group was staying in the SALS bunkhouse for the week, which is located in the tiny, census-designated coal community (about 200 people) of Beards Fork. It is one of hundreds of similarly small coal-camp communities (called “hollers”) that dot and pattern Fayette County like lace. Built in the early 1900s by coal companies who brought in labor to work the mines, these communities are situated in deep ravines and nestled along the mountain foothills which provide direct access to the coal through the hillsides.
Beards Fork is almost 20 miles from the nearest town (Oak Hill) and 12 miles from the nearest cell phone and GPS service. The turn-off from the main road passes under one of the endless arrays of train tracks that spiderweb through the area, carrying car after car of black coal. The 3 mile drive from the train tracks to Beards Fork winds down a narrow, unlit road that meanders alongside a stream. It is a breathtakingly beautiful and isolated area.
One of the understandings that emerged for me this week is that West Virginia is a place of contradictions. On one hand it has more than its fair share of challenges: a declining and aging population, a poor educational system, communities swallowed by drugs and poverty, stagnant economic growth, and little opportunities for jobs. It has been repeatedly abandoned by the coal industry which leaves environmental devastation, deadly black lung disease and unemployment in its wake. And the land itself is harsh – almost impossible to farm, back-breaking, rocky and unforgiving.
But beyond those challenges what I also found was a land of great resilience and breathtaking beauty. Mountains thick with fairy-tale forests of maples, elms and pine curve around enchanting streams and wild, clear rivers. Vistas open out to deep, cool ravines. The people I met are strong, resilient, fiery proud and history-fierce. They face the world with a tenacious self-sufficiency and a warm-hearted sense of community that harkens back to a time long ago. There is a quiet strength, a defiant yet passionate vibrancy and a connection to past and to each other that is a very different identity from that which we’ve developed in the northeast. And the link between coal, the land and the people is everywhere. Everyone we met had some connection to coal and there is a refreshingly intense pride in that.
Over the week we had many opportunities to explore the area and learn its history. We learned that coal mining really began when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway was built through the New River Gorge back in the 1870s. With the railroad came the coal mining boom and hundreds of individual mines, owned by a handful of large companies. The population in Fayette County jumped from 6,000 to over 60,000 by 1920 and then again to over 82,000 in the 1940s. Since the 1950s coal mining has been in decline. Mining technology improvements, changes to household heating methods, improvements in electricity technology, the abundance of cheaper, cleaner US-produced natural gas, and the impact of having used up the easily accessible coal seams (leaving companies having to exploit the much more expensive harder-to-reach reserves), have all led to the closure of mines and mining companies. With that came joblessness and economic struggle. Towns disappeared. People moved away. The population in the area today is about half of what it was at its peak.
One afternoon we toured a coal mine. Our guide had worked a mine for 40 years and we left with a profound amazement at the physical and mental conditions experienced by miners who toiled away in the complete darkness of 36 inch high spaces for 12 – 16 hours day, trying to make their tonnage quotas to earn their pay. Boys as young as 14 worked the mines driving mules to pull coal cars from the shafts or working 10 – 11 hours a day in picking shafts sorting rocks and other debris from the coal.
We toured a company store, originally built by the mining company as a hub of a coal community, where miners were paid and their families bought all their goods and supplies. From that we learned what life was like in the camps and for families.
We visited local mining towns, watching a homecoming parade and eating at a favorite local hotel. We hiked beautiful vistas along waterfalls and rivers and great gorges.
Everywhere we went we met open, friendly, welcoming, loving people who shared family stories. Everyone was connected to coal mining in some way. And of course, each day from 9 to 4 we were fortunate to work with our SALS team at the Gray house, helping with repairs and getting to know the local team in their generous, open, easygoing ways.
By the end of the week our group had only made a tiny dent in the long list of repairs at Mr. Gray’s house. The local SALS team will continue to work on it until everything is complete. Even though the end results of our physical work were meager, we were going home with so much more. I’m not sure what I expected from my experience when I first entered Beards Fork, but I left West Virginia with a great love of the people and the area. There is beauty and strength in both. It is something I will keep with me, reflect upon, learn from and share.